W.M. Hunt is a photography collector, curator and consultant who lives and works in New York. He was a Founding partner of the prominent photography gallery Hasted Hunt (now Hasted Kraeutler) in Chelsea, Manhattan, and former director of photography at Ricco/Maresca gallery, Hunt has been collecting photography for over 35 years and is a professor at the School of Visual Arts and his collection of photographs was recently showcased in his book The Unseen Eye.
Grant: What is it that inspires you to buy photographs?
Bill: The answer that I have given to that question, over the years is ‘the voices’, I listened to ‘the voices’ that told me to go out and buy photographs. However, the systematic easy answer is that I think that everyone in the western word knows about photography thanks to the millions of photographic images they see every day. People can tell the good ones from the bad ones, they may not be able to articulate that but everyone has this experience of photography. For me it was this intuitive thing, I just had this notion that I wanted to own a photograph that was secretive and romantic.
Forty years ago in New York you could pretty much see all of the photographs that were for sale in the space of an hour. There were less than half a dozen places you could go to and so I went to Sothebys, but I didn’t know anything, anything, anything about photography. I looked through the catalogue for the sale and I saw this image by Imogen Cunningham and I thought ‘Wow!’ The picture came up across the room once the sale had started and I thought, ‘I’ve heard of her, I’ve seen her on TV. It was a perfect photograph of a veiled woman and it was called The Dream although I later found out that this was just a title, which Sothebys had put on it. Anyway I bought the picture, which was for me a lot of money $300 although in reality it wasn’t. I thought what have I just done, this is insane, I didn’t have any money but collectors always find the money. It’s the test of your seriousness as a collector. I took the photograph home and just thought it was so great, so I went to look at some more, with the idea that I wanted photographs in which the eyes did not look into the camera. I was interested in what was withheld, what the relationship was and is between the viewer and the picture, which should constantly change as it does with a really good picture.
Grant: What makes a collector and how do you see photography today challenging the excepted norm? and is the new landscape of image making also presenting photography in a new emotionally challenging light?
Bill: People who collect, collect, other people have no idea what you are doing. Suddenly, I had become a collector and I was looking at photographs, looking and looking. There is a really good Walker Evans quote about looking “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long”. It’s true and that’s how I learnt about photography. I looked at books, magazines, in museums and I thought it was just fantastic fun. I was looking for curious pictures and I was looking to be surprised. People talk about photographs as being evidence, as information but the pictures I am attracted to are full of life even if the same picture may appear to someone else as being really dark. My choice of photograph is a reflection of my own life.
I own one of the falling man images from September 11th, which many people find unsettling but what is unsettling to me about that image is that I was disturbed for myself, by myself aesthetically. It is this amazing photograph of a man hurtling to his death, which is horrible and sad but it is also epic and perfect as a photograph. Joel Peter Witkin’s Man Without Head is another troubling image for a lot of people. It is of a large, naked fat man still with his socks on in a morgue sitting on a stool, with, as the title suggests no head. Joel’s composition leaves space for the head that’s missing, it is at the basic level a portrait of a decapitated individual but when I saw the picture in it’s original printed form I felt that it was amazing, it was overpowering. Everything in your body, is saying that Joel has broken every rule to make the picture, which violates every social convention. For myself as a personal experience, I found the picture empowering. It was a big deal for me.
Grant: The power is in owning.
Bill: Yes because people have a range of reactions to it. Some people will not look at it and others respond really positively to it. The only other picture I know that has a similar effect on people is Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit, which is of a man with an enormous exposed male member. People respond to that a similarly circumspect way.
Grant: You seem to show no fear in your collecting and yet in a time of great change within the photographic world do you have a set agenda or pathway, which you follow as a collector, dealer and tutor.
Bill: I have a piece of paper in my clothes closet which says “If you don’t know where you’re going, the road will take you there” which turns out to be a John Lennon quote. It’s the great disclaimer for not knowing what you are doing. If you leave yourself open to experiences, cool things happen, doors open. That’s how I ended up being a dealer, which is a very hard thing to do. At the end of the day selling photographs is a big deal and whatever the perception is of the art world and the largesse of a certain level of economic wealth. I greet the sale of any photograph with celebration. I was an actor so I understand the heartbreak of rejection but it is hard for photographers to deal with when they have so much invested emotionally and financially in their work. They really need to sell their pictures, there is fulfillment in creating the images but they still need to sell them. If the photographer is at the top of their game bringing everything they have to their image making they will find pleasure in their working practice and there is also something to say that those images will be the easiest for me to sell because they exude a uniqueness. I do everything I can to promote pictures but it is really, really difficult to sell them at this time, but not impossible.
Grant: How do you bring this experience and reality to the students you teach? Are you positive about the current state of the industry and are they?
Bill: I spend all of my time trying to persuade them not to be artists because there are lots of ways of having a wonderful, fulfilling, lives with photography rather than seeing themselves as artists. Over the years I have had no interest in making photographs and as time has gone by I have had even less but photography is my life. The people who are engaged in creating these images that I love so much, my heart goes out to them because it is hard.
© Grant Scott 2012